The senior QC advising ministers on their approach to Heathrow’s third runway is poised to step down after a landmark ruling on Thursday that ruled the government had broken the law in its approach to the airport’s proposed expansion.
James Maurici, who had led the government’s defence in the face of multiple legal actions against the project, is currently in discussions with the Department for Transport over the timing of his departure.
A DfT spokesperson said: “James Maurici QC has been in place for 11 years and discussions about him stepping down at the end of current litigation were held long before the judgment this week. Our decision not to appeal has simply brought the discussion forward.”
A spokesman for Landmark Chambers, where Mr Maurici is a tenant, on Friday said: “It was always James’ intention to step down following the conclusion of the government’s Heathrow expansion litigation and the decision to not appeal this week’s judgment has simply brought that discussion forward.”
The government suffered a major legal defeat on Thursday when the Court of Appeal ruled that plans for a new third runway at Heathrow Airport were unlawful on environmental grounds.
The judgment found the government had failed to take into account commitments made under the 2016 Paris agreement on climate change when assessing Heathrow’s expansion plan.
The court concluded that Chris Grayling, the former transport secretary, had been given legal advice that he should not take into account the Paris accord when drawing up the “Airports National Policy Statement” which authorised the expansion.
The justices pointed the finger at the government’s legal advisers for the error, claiming the “Secretary of state received legal advice that not only did he not have to take the Paris agreement into account but that he was legally obliged not to take it into account at all”.
The accusation potentially implicated the department’s internal legal advisers as well as its external counsel.
But the government later slammed the accusation that its lawyers were at fault as “factually incorrect”. A spokesperson said the court was wrong to say the secretary of state had been given advice to ignore the Paris agreement and said it was “purely an assumption by the court not based on any evidence or documentation”.
The ANPS, which was backed by MPs in 2018 by a big majority, cleared the way for Heathrow expansion.
The judgment noted, however, that a third runway could still go ahead — even if Heathrow loses its appeal — but only if the government rewrote its airport policy statement in line with the UK’s climate commitments.
Heathrow’s management is now set to appeal against the decision. But the government has refused to do so, raising expectations that the project will be quietly shelved if the company’s appeal fails.
Prime minister Boris Johnson is considered unlikely to authorise the necessary rewriting of the ANP given that he has campaigned against the scheme for years and once promised to “lie in front of the bulldozers” to prevent it being built.